Rowing the slaveships of online journalism


Journalist Xavier Ternisien paints a gloomy picture of the working life of online journalists in an article published in Le Monde on 25 May. Les forçats de l’info, which loosely translates as ‘The galley slaves of news.’ The piece describes crowded newsrooms, precarious contracts, antisocial hours and rushed work.
“The Internet has given birth to a new race of journalists,” Ternisien says. These young people spend all day (or night) in front of their computer and accept short-term contracts and lower pay than their counterparts in the print media. They are “slaves,” but they are “consenting.”  They believe in the future of the web, the article adds.

Hostile reactions

Ternisien’s piece triggered a wave of reactions – many of them hostile. The attacks often focused on the author’s use of derogatory terms, like “battery chicken,” “Pakistanis of the web” or “low cost” journalists. Even if these words appeared in quotation marks, some readers seem to have taken them as insults coming from the author himself.

Some commentators were critical of the content itself. Patrick Fiole, former editor-in-chief of, the online version of newsmagazine Nouvel Observateur delivers a vitriolic response in his blog. He accuses Ternisien, among other things, of not checking the facts when telling the story a web journalist at who allegedly made a factual blunder because of the stress of time.

“Preach what you practise,” he tells the Le Monde journalist.

Not just press wire contents

Fiole also blames the article for focusing too much on the reproduction of press wire content. He points out that the web team at spends no more than 20 percent of its time editing and putting news online, while the other 80 percent is spent doing interviews, organising chats, special reports, and finding relevant links, photos, videos, etc.

Ternisien does indeed mention web journalists’ many other tasks. But Fiole is not the only one to feel that this aspect was neglected: Le Monde’s Société des Rédacteurs, an association of journalists inside the newspaper, itself reacted by stating that only one journalist at a time works on editing press wire content at

Beyond the criticism, some praised the article for putting the finger on the shortcomings of online journalism. Laurent Mauriac, of news website Rue89, says that “despite caricatured aspects and hasty generalisations” in Ternisien’s article, it can be credited for triggering a debate on online news.” News websites pay too much attention to feature high on the Google News search engine, he says, picking up on a point raised by Ternisien.

Basically the same

While Les forçats de l’info stresses the differences between the web and print newsrooms, some point to their similarities. Eric Mettout, editor-in-chief of, who is directly cited in the article, agrees that web journalists often work in precarious conditions. But he asks why Ternisien focuses so much on web journalists, while many print journalists also work with short term contracts.

In a round-up of the debate, Libération’s Frédérique Roussel points out that the dichotomy between the web and print in journalism is the result of the unanswered question of the viability of the business of online news.

“The forced labourers are not consenting slaves, but they are smitten by the infinite ubiquity of the tool. It has nothing to do with good or bad journalism,” she concludes.

Ternisien may not have expected to provoke such a torrent of reactions with a piece that presents many different points of view and aspects of the job of online journalists.

One reader of Rue89 commented that the hostile reactions came most often from news website managers, not the web journalists themselves.

Flickr image from user Tim Patterson